"Millionaire" is a word that the financial press likes to throw around a lot. The Fool's no exception -- my fellow Fools (and I) often talk about stocks or strategies that "could make you a millionaire."

From a writer's perspective, it makes for a great hook, because it's a word loaded with great connotations. For many, it's a hazy, happy vision of Rolls-Royces, waterfront mansions, black-tie parties, and the whole gilded Newport-and-Palm-Beach lifestyle of another age. Even if that doesn't sound like your kind of thing, chances are that the word still comes with a happy glow of ease and freedom.

But although the word "millionaire" sounds impressive and comes with some handsome Louis Vuitton baggage, the truth is … it's not.

In fact, it's a lot closer to hot dogs than to caviar.

You'd better be a millionaire, and then some
Think being a millionaire is enough? Picture this: It's your retirement day, and you have an even million bucks in your IRA. You're rich, right?

Hold that thought for a second, because your helpful financial planner, following the industry's conventional wisdom, is telling you that 4% a year is the most you should withdraw if you want to make sure you don't outlive your savings. And 4% of a million is … $40,000. That's $3,333 a month.

Social Security will add to that, of course -- right now, the average payment is $1,153 a month, or a bit less than $14,000 a year.

$54,000 a year. That's not poverty by any means, particularly if you're living in a paid-for house. But it's definitely not huge wealth.

To me, a million bucks looks like the bare minimum price of admission to a half-decent retirement. And I don't know about you, but I'd like quite a bit more than that.

So how are you going to get yours?
It's easy to say "just buy great stocks and wait a while." I mean, with hindsight, we can pick some excellent investments to have made 20 years ago:


20-Year Total Return



Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)


Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)


Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)


ConocoPhilips (NYSE:COP)


Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)


Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC)


Source: Yahoo! Finance. Returns calculated from Oct. 27, 1989, to Oct. 27, 2009, and include reinvestment of dividends.

That's just a small sampling -- I'm sure we can think of dozens of other stocks we'd like our long-lost uncle to have bought for us back in 1989. But that's with hindsight -- we can't count on generating Microsoft-sized returns over the next 20 years.

Of course, we can -- and should -- work on stock-picking, as that's a time-tested way to build big wealth over time. But this is our retirement we're talking about, and as we all know, plenty of great-looking stocks fail to take off. We need some ways to stack the odds in our favor so that we're assured of at least a comfortable retired life.

Tools to improve your chances
This is why so many experts recommend time-tested portfolio-optimization tools like asset allocation and diversification. This is why we say it's not enough to just throw money into your 401(k) -- you need to be smart about what you do with it.

Holding a few great Foolish-favorite stocks in your IRA is an excellent move, one that I bet plenty of you have already made. But how do those stocks fit in with your overall portfolio? Remember that your 401(k) and your IRAs and your spouse's 403(b) and IRA and that beach house you've been planning to sell when you retire are all one portfolio.

Did you take all of that into account when you set up your 401(k)'s asset allocation? (You did set up some sort of asset allocation, didn't you?) It may be that you choose to hold stocks in a big rollover IRA and use your 401(k)'s excellent bond-fund options to help diversify the risk. Or you may choose an entirely different approach depending on your circumstances. But no matter what, you need to think of all of your retirement investments as a single portfolio -- and use the tools available to you to maximize their long-haul potential.

The upshot
My point is this: If you want to be more than a millionaire when you retire, you need to do more than just save. You need to think about what you're doing with those savings, and make sure all of the different pieces are working together, intelligently.

Need some help setting up an asset-allocation plan? Check out the excellent model portfolios maintained by the Fool's Rule Your Retirement analysts. They're detailed, simple to implement, and designed to work well with nearly any retirement plan. You can get 30 days of access at absolutely no charge with a free trial.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Apple, which is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Microsoft and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.